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F - 163 : Legacies of Byzantium

Trying to find remnants of old Byzantium in modern Istanbul is quite a task. Of course the Theodosian Walls which once protected Constantinople are easy to find. Same holds true for the Valens Aqueduct which brought fresh water from sources 120 km away or the Hagia Sophia with its wonderful dome. They still stand because they remained in use after 1453. The walls were repaired, the aqueduct refitted and Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque.

It is less easy to find places like the former Emperors’ palace with its beautiful mosaics, the old Hippodrome, the orthodox Byzantine churches or the famous cisterns.

One of the First Maps of Constinople from 1420

There are legacies thought we see every day – we just don’t know it. Let’s look at a few:

The Bible

There would not be a bible without Constantine the Great. The old testament was written on scrolls. A “New Testament” did not exist until put together. In 330 AD, when Constantine made Byzantium his new capital, he wanted to build a Christian town. There would be no temples for old deities - only churches. Christians were to be exempt from taxes. Only non-believers would pay. Of course conversion to Christianity skyrocketed. This created a unique problem. How do you tell the gospel to so many new Christians?

A Page from the Gospel of St Peter - today in the Vatican Library in Rome

A story book was needed. Constantine ordered 50 bibles from his scribes in Alexandria. But such a thing did not exist. It had to be compiled first. The old testament was easy. It could be copied from the Thora. But there were over 300 different gospels covering Jesus’ life – with often contradicting stories. Many too radical and libertarian for the new Emperor. Could not find out what was exactly included in the 50 first bibles and whether some of them survived. In our New Testament there are 27 books. In the Coptic Church there are eight more, however. The gospel of James or Magdalena did not make it into our New Testament.

Emperor Constantine who was not yet baptised in the company

of some of the Key Bishops at the Council of Nicaea

In 325 AD, to resolve the many contradictions in Christian doctrine, Constantine invited the Empire’s 1’800 bishops to the first ever ecumenical council. It took place in Nicaea. Around 320 bishops attended. Not only from the Roman Empire but also from Sassanid Persia. On the agenda was the divine nature of Christ and his relationship with God, the statement of believe (Creed of Nicaea), when to celebrate Easter and some canonical law. The make-up of the New Testament was probably discussed but not decided. The formal codification of the New Testament happened several decades later at other ecumenical councils. Without Constantine’s orders however, the bible we know today would not exist.

Code of Justinian – Roman Law

We are so used to law today that we seldom ask: how comes? As society got more complex and human interactions increased, establishing rules for everybody made perfect sense. The Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) from Babylon is the first law text we have. Hammurabi was not the last king to establish rules. The Roman Emperors issued so many edicts that it was difficult to keep track. Almost nobody knew them all. Many contradicted each other. At various times, people tried to compile them and major effort were made under Theodosius II, the emperor who built Constantinople’s double walls. It was only a start though.

We owe Emperor Justinian (482 - 565) not only the Hagia Sophia

but also the Corpus Juris Civilis, our codified private Law

Almost 200 years later, Emperor Justinian who regained North Africa and Italy and built the Hagia Sophia, made another concerted effort. He understood that the contradictions and inconsistencies in Roman law created endless conflicts and imposed a heavy cost on society. He tasked 10 commissioners to review the entire existing body of law, remove outdated rules and make the ones to be retained consistent. After consulting 2’000 scripts, some of them 1’000 years old, the ten experts submitted 14 months later the results in three codex (= books) and two volumes of additional comments. By 529 AD Byzantium had more or less coherent laws. Five years later, a revised codex was published, resolving issues which had been overlooked in the first round.

Medieval Copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis from the 13th Century made in Ghent

Written in Latin, Byzantium’s official language until the 7th century AD, the Code of Justinian was only applied within the empire but its influence extended far beyond. The Corpus Juris Civilis, as it is officially known, became the reference for European private law and remains its basis to this day . Who thinks of Byzantium when using commercial law ? Nobody, I guess.


Most people know about silks origins in China. The precious fabric was not only liked in Asia but also in Europe. It reached Europe over the “silk road”. The silk trade was already so well established during Roman times that several emperors worried about the vast amounts of silver spent on it. The Chinese were able to protect the silk’s secret for a long time until Emperor Justinian commissioned Nestorian monks to smuggle silk worms back to Constantinople. Knowing Europe’s appetite for the precious fabric, he established a silk monopoly in 553/4, opened factories and produced silk on a large scale. As expected, the product was very popular. Everybody wanted to buy. Business was good. Even Charlemagne wore a magnificent silk shroud from Constantinople for his coronation in Rome.

Charlemagne's Silk Shroud worn at his Coronation

in Rome in 800 AD

Silk was one of the major revenue sources for the Byzantium empire. But after it was sacked by the 4th Crusade and Veneice in 1204, the monopoly could not be protected any longer. The Normans established silk factories in Sicily from where the trade spread to Lucca and Venice. Losing their export markets, the old factories in Constantinople died a slow death. Mulberry trees were planted all over Europe. We leant about this during our sailing around Corsica in 2020. Under Genovese laws, every farmer had to plant one olive, one chestnut and one mulberry tree per year. Even without the dreadful events of 1204, silk would have found its way to Europe. It is too elegant and precious to be missed.

Christian Europe

The Byzantium Empire is also the reason why Europe developed a Christian identity and did not become Muslim. Arab mercenaries were employed by Rome for centuries to protect its border against Parthians (Persians). But Mohammed united them in the 7th century. His successor routed the Imperial Army at Yarmouk (close to the Sea of Galilea) in 636 AD and conquered the Levante, Egypt and North Africa with lightning speed. After Yarmouk there was no Byzantine Army left. The Empire with its heavy taxes and continued harassment of local churches was deeply unpopular. No locals raised a finger in its defense. Had it not been for the Taurus mountains in Anatolia , the Arab cavalry could have taken Constantinople.

An Arab Fleet took over the Cyzicus Peninsula in 674 to launch its Attack on Constantinople

Despite the Arab conquest, people living in the Levant and Egypt stayed Christian for centuries. They now had new lords but not much else changed. But over time, most except a minority converted. Christians had to pay a special tax for non-believers. Islam and Christianity, both monotheist religions with the same God, were not as far apart as we believe today. They preached a similar, modest life styles. We need to look no further than women’s dress code in 700 AD. Both prescribe head scarves and ankle long dresses.

The Byzantine forces used Greek Fire, a form of Napalm, which could not be extinguished with water to set the Arab Fleet on Fire

Having consolidated their conquests, the Caliphs launched twice, in 674 and 717, a massive land and seaborn attack on Byzantium, their only true rival. With many Christian sailors and soldiers in their ranks, they reached and besieged Constantinople. But Greek fire (a type of Napalm) saved the day for Byzantium. The Arab fleet was burnt and the attackers defeated. It was a close run though. Had the Caliphs been victorious, nothing could have stopped the spread of the Muslim forces further west and north into mainland Europe. The Holy Roman Empire of German Nations which Charlemagne created in 800 AD did not exist yet. Under Charles Martel, the Franks were able to beat back a Muslim Army of 20’000 at Poitiers in 732 AD. But this was not a coordinated attack by the Caliphs.

Arab Campaigns in the late 7th and early 8th Century against Byzantium - It was a close thing - the coloured zones show which areas would have been first taken over. by the Caliphate.

Wonder how Muslim Europe would have developed over the centuries. The Caliphate in Baghdad was the most sophisticated society at the time. Culturally open and religiously tolerant, it contributed significantly to our modern world, be it in agriculture, science or manufacturing. Under Muslim rule, Europe may not have descended into the “dark” middle ages and become a unified polity. The fractured nature of Europe though was the base of our renaissance. Without the relentless competition between dozens of mini states, the renaissance would not have happened, the age of exploration never started and the industrial revolution never taken off. But this is speculation. We will never know.

Am running out of space today - less than half the topics are even covered. The four horses on San Marco Square, the origins of clerical dresses, the concept of armored knights, what cupolas have to do with Constantinople, the Cyrillic script and the Russian flag will have to wait for another time. Byzantium’s legacy is everywhere. It is just so present that we hardly notice it.

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